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“Why Are Ahmaud Arbery’s Killers So Scared?”: Self-Defense Claims by White Attackers Seen as Racist

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Update on Nov. 24: Jurors on Wednesday afternoon returned guilty verdicts against all three of the white men charged with killing 25-year-old Ahmaud Arbery in February 2020. Travis McMichael fired the fatal shots and was convicted on all counts, including the charge of malice murder. His father Gregory McMichael, a former police officer, and neighbor William “Roddie” Bryan were convicted of felony murder and other charges.

As the jury deliberates in the trial of the three white men charged with hunting down and murdering 25-year-old Black jogger Ahmaud Arbery, we speak with Nicole Lewis, senior editor of jurisprudence at Slate about her piece titled “Why Are Ahmaud Arbery’s Killers So Scared?” She says claims of self-defense from armed white people serve as a “racist dog whistle” and that it is inevitably a one-sided trial when “the McMichaels are the only ones [surviving] that get to claim they’re scared.”

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: So, I want to go to that trial in Georgia right now, which is now in jury deliberations. Again, of course, this is the trial of the three white men, a father and son, the father a former police officer, and their neighbor, who hunted down and killed 25-year-old Black jogger Ahmaud Arbery. You recently wrote a piece titled “Why Are Ahmaud Arbery’s Killers So Scared?” Now, I first want to go to the prosecutor Linda Dunikoski during the trial questioning Travis McMichael.

LINDA DUNIKOSKI: At this point in time, when you first see him on Burford, he’s not reaching into his pockets.

TRAVIS McMICHAEL: No, ma’am. Not running, no, ma’am.

LINDA DUNIKOSKI: And he never yelled at you guys.


LINDA DUNIKOSKI: Never threatened you at all.

TRAVIS McMICHAEL: No, ma’am. Not verbally.

LINDA DUNIKOSKI: Never brandished any weapons?

ATTORNEY: Sorry, You Honor, he was trying to finish his answer.

TRAVIS McMICHAEL: Yeah, he did not threaten me verbally. No, ma’am.

LINDA DUNIKOSKI: All right. Didn’t brandish any weapons?


LINDA DUNIKOSKI: Didn’t pull out any guns?


LINDA DUNIKOSKI: Didn’t pull out any knife?


LINDA DUNIKOSKI: Never reached for anything, did he?



TRAVIS McMICHAEL: Yes, he was just running.

AMY GOODMAN: Clearly, a key moment in this trial. Well, on Tuesday, prosecutor Linda Dunikoski delivered her closing argument.

LINDA DUNIKOSKI: They started it. They do not get to claim self-defense. And then, of course, provocation. You can’t force someone to defend themselves against you so you get to claim self-defense. This isn’t the Wild West.

AMY GOODMAN: That, again, the prosecutor delivering her final closing arguments, and now the jury is deliberating today for the second day. Nicole Lewis, again, this piece that you wrote, “Why Are Ahmaud Arbery’s Killers So Scared?” Why do you think they are?

NICOLE LEWIS: Yeah. I mean, so my central thesis for this piece is that fear, on the one hand, is often a just very convenient defense argument just to claim self-defense. “I was scared. I was scared for my life, and so I had to take action.” But at the same time, it is also very clearly a racist dog whistle. And so, what I mean by that is it sends a message to anyone watching, to white America, to say, “You understand why I was so scared interacting with this young Black man.” And I quoted Travis McMichael to say that, you know, “Ahmaud Arbery was overpowering me, and it was so clear that if I didn’t act and if he got my gun, that he would kill me.” And we have no way of assessing Ahmaud Arbery’s intentions, no way of knowing if he would have taken that gun and shot Travis or just taken it to say, “Don’t shoot me” — right? — no way of intoning what would have happened there. And yet the McMichaels claim that they were terrified, even though Ahmaud Arbery was outnumbered, even though he had been running for miles before the altercation.

And so, I really wanted to shift the frame and get us to try to think about Ahmaud’s fear. Right? He’s being hunted, stalked by a truck full of two white men with guns with Confederate license plates. He’s not sure what’s going to happen, right? It’s a terrifying moment. It’s a terrifying end to somebody’s life. But the McMichaels are the only ones who get to claim that they’re scared. And this is a defense that we see time and again from private citizens, as well as police officers, who have all stood trial for shooting unarmed Black people, that they were about to be overpowered, that they were scared, even though they provoked these incidents. And I think that that was what the prosecutor was trying to get at, that you don’t get to create a situation in which someone has to defend themselves against you and then claim that you were terrified and had to act.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Nicole Lewis, we’re going to link to your piece. Nicole is senior editor of jurisprudence at Slate, her latest piece, “Why Are Ahmaud Arbery’s Killers So Scared?”

When we come back, we look at a highly disturbing story about rapes near Buffalo, New York, where a judge has sparked outrage after ruling it’s inappropriate to jail a young serial rapist from a prominent white wealthy family who pleaded guilty to raping and sexually assaulting four teenage girls aged 15 and 16. We’ll speak with one of the survivors, who was in the courtroom during the sentencing. Stay with us.

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